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Lights, Camera, Ticket!
January 2008 By John R. Quain

Is being forewarned really the same as being forearmed? In the case of radar detectors, law enforcement has often argued that such devices encourage law breaking. If speeders believe—accurately or not--that they won’t be caught, it will embolden them to speed even more frequently. But does the same argument hold true when it comes to warnings about the presence of so-called red light cameras? Some recent technology that alerts drivers when they are being monitored may put the lie to the argument.

Red light cameras have been deployed in the U.S. since the mid nineties when New York City was the first major metropolitan area to install the automated devices to catch violators. While the technology varies from system to system, typically a camera is installed 50 to 100 feet back from an intersection and connected to an intersection’s signaling system. The cameras then use one of several different techniques to sense a car’s position at an intersection, including video motion sensors, laser tracking, and so-called loop sensors that are embedded in the roadway. But no matter which method is used, when a car passes the stop line after the light has turned red (usually about 3 tenths of a second after the change) the camera snaps a photo or series of photos of the infraction (including the car’s license plate). The violator is thus caught red handed, as it were, and the owner of the vehicle is issued a ticket—including the photographic evidence--by mail. In New York City, such tickets are $50, but no points are assessed against the driver’s license.

The point of such photo enforcement, according the city’s Department of Transportation, insurance companies, and the firms that make the equipment, is not to generate revenue but rather to reduce red light running and improve safety. The effect can be dramatic, according the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, reducing violations by about 40 percent and dangerous front-into-side crashes involving injuries by 68 percent at intersections where cameras are introduced. The Insurance Institute cites as one particularly noteworthy example a dangerous intersection on Philadelphia’s Roosevelt Blvd. where there was an average of 198 red light violations per 10,000 vehicles. After cameras were installed the rate dropped to just 1.8 violations per 10,000 vehicles. It’s numbers like these that have encouraged hundreds of communities across the U.S. to install red light cameras.

However, the Automobile Association of America, while recognizing the contribution such technology can make to road safety, cautions that red light cameras should be used in conjunction with other safety programs. To effectively deter drivers from running red lights, the AAA recommends that cities should also embark on intensive campaigns to educate and inform motorists before using photo enforcement and that prominent signs should be displayed to alert motorists to the presence of cameras. Some municipalities like Philadelphia post such signs, but others, like New York City take the antithetical approach by purposively concealing camera locations. New York does not publish information on red light camera positions, and in fact uses scores of dummy cameras to keep drivers guessing. Such a strategy appears to obviate the deterrence factor often cited in support of cameras. However, there are now ways that drivers can arm themselves with early warning systems that alert them to the presence of even hidden red light cameras.

The $449 Escort Passport 9500i, for example, is a radar and laser detector with a built-in GPS antenna. As with navigation systems, this allows the detector to pinpoint your exact location—and the exact location of red light cameras. Owners use the 9500i to mark photo enforcement intersections by pressing a button on the radar detector and selecting an option to tag it as a “camera” (places can also be set to warn you of approaching speed traps). Then whenever that spot is approached in the future, the 9500i automatically beeps and displays an LED warning as you approach the intersection.

However, marking camera locations can be difficult to do in practice. Aside from the problem I had reaching forward to tag intersections that I knew for certain had cameras (thanks to their telltale photo flashes), not all cameras at intersections are easily identified. Some cameras mounted on stanchions are not used to catch red light violations but rather to monitor high crime areas or traffic flow. And in New York City, there are about 250 dummy camera installed that don’t do anything at all.

Some Web sites compile data on the location of red light cameras across the country, but the accuracy of the information varies. At PhotoEnforced.com, for example, there’s a database of over 2,200 red light and speed cameras. However, only a fraction of the existing cameras are listed (less than half of all the cameras in New York City, for example), and not all the locations are accurate, according to American Traffic Solutions (AST), which designs and installs automated toll and traffic violation processing system across the country. Cobra

To overcome this shortcoming, Cobra Electronics’ $450 XRS R9G radar and laser detector includes a built-in database of confirmed red light cameras in the U.S. The R9G’s GPS antenna however, is not built-in like the Escort detector. Instead, the antenna plugs into the side of the device with a short cable, making for an awkward and less streamlined installation on a car windshield. Nevertheless, an included wireless rechargeable remote control can be clipped onto a visor or air vent to display colorful, eye-catching warnings. This meant that not only did the R9G’s voice automatically alert me to “photo enforcement” spots in New York City, but when my music drowned out the audio warning a blinking bull’s eye on the remote served to catch my attention.

While the Cobra system was easier to use--I didn’t have to enter camera locations on my own--it wasn’t perfect. In most monitored intersections in New York, the cameras only photograph traffic in one direction, for example, but the R9G wasn’t able to discern this fact and warned me no matter what direction I approached an intersection from. On the other hand, the device did catch every legitimate photo enforcement location in the areas I tested. While Cobra declines to specify precisely how many camera locations are listed in its database, the company says it includes “thousands” of locations that it confirms independently. The Cobra database is updated daily and R9G owners can periodically update the detectors for free via the company’s Web site.

But are such red light camera warning systems a helpful tool for drivers or just another way for malfeasant motorists to avoid a ticket?

“It’s just a location technology,” defends Dave Marsh, Cobra’s director of mobile navigation, “not a detection technology.” And the warnings can reinforce the deterrence factor with additional warnings for drivers, he says.

AST, which makes the camera systems, concurs. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it,” says James Tuton, president and CEO of AST. “You’re not trying to defeat the technology, so it’s not like a radar detector.”

Indeed, while Cobra is adding the camera warning system to a new line of detectors to be introduced at this week’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, the company points out that red light alerts need not be tied only to radar detecting equipment. The camera location information could be used with any GPS device. Indeed, the same camera database is available in the company’s $510 Nav One 5000 car navigation system. Cobra’s Marsh also believes that such information could help reduce the kind of rear-end accidents that some believe can be precipitated by drivers braking at the last second to avoid a camera ticket.

The New York City Department of Transportation, however, continues to believe that identifying camera locations encourages motorists to disobey signals at intersections that are not monitored. While this may seem like logic worthy of Dr. Strangelove, the city emphasizes that there are approximately 12,000 signaled intersections in the city, and it can’t monitor them all.

For my part, I found I appreciated the early warnings, which tended to increase my attentiveness and made me increase my distance from other vehicles as I approached potentially dangerous intersections. Some of my passengers complained about the distracting warning sounds and flashes, but in the end I found the old adage was true: being forewarned is being forearmed.

(JQ also appeared on the Fox Business channel to discuss red light camera technology on January 4, 2008.)


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